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It takes a village
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Savannah loves to celebrate its diversity. There’s the Greek Festival, St. Patrick’s Day, the Asian Festival -- the list of ethnic festivals goes on and on.

But perhaps no ethnic celebration has grown over the past few years as much as the Savannah Black Heritage Festival.

This year’s festival will be the sixth produced by Savannah State University and the 16th produced by the City of Savannah. From Sunday to Sunday for one week every February, there are performances, storytelling, lectures, receptions, parades and more.

The 2005 festival is no exception, but does have one exciting addition -- the African-American Living & Learning Village. It will be held on Saturday, Feb. 12 from 1-4 p.m. at the Savannah Civic Center as part of the Grand Festival, the biggest day of the festival.

Events leading up to the Grand Festival include the School Day Extravaganza for area school children, lectures, concerts and the presentation of a play. One highlight is the presentation of Midnight Ramble, a documentary about race films, on Feb. 11 at 6 p.m. followed at 8 p.m. by Oscar Micheaux’s Body and Soul, a silent film with a 17-piece jazz ensemble that will provide the score for the film.

The Black Business Expo will precede the Grand Festival from 9-11 a.m. at the civic center. The Grand Festival will open at 1 p.m. with a parade and ribbon-cutting ceremony, with the Grand Festival lasting until 9 p.m.

“When our committee gets together, we try to come up with new things,” says Shirley James, the festival’s organizer. “We try to find something that will fit our theme.”

The theme of this year’s festival is Experience Our Village, Empower Our Youth. “We thought we ought to have a village this year, something that would be on-site at the civic center,” James says.

The village will be placed in a tent outside the civic center. Festival goers will enter the civic center by passing through the village.

“We’re going to have crafts, including basket making, and demonstrations,” James says. “There will be a quilting demonstration.”

There also will be hands-on workshops in basket making, doll making, quilting and mask making. “In terms of arts and crafts, we are increasing our offerings,” James says. “Before, we only had basket making.”

The intent is to make the village a homey place, with the elders teaching others their wisdom, just as it would be in an African village. “These are crafts that have always been in the African-American community,” James says.

There also will be classes for children, including Printing for Children and Book Walk Bebop. While there’s plenty to do in the village, even more events will happen inside the arena.

Participants will include storyteller Minerva King, the Sankofa Dance Theatre, the SSU Dance Troupe, the Maxine Patterson Dance School, Chef Joe Randall, Toby Foyeh and Orchestra Africa, plus the Spelman Jazz Ensemble.

“Magic Marc will be performing in the arena,” James says. “We will have three dance troupes during the day. There will other entertainment, including an African drum group, and there will be African dancing and music.”

The Spitfire Poetry Group will be doing poetry readings and spoken word. Headliner Ben E. King will perform rhythm and blues, and for younger listeners, Yewande will perform.

Although the Grand Festival is the biggest event, it does not close out the festival. The final event will be Sunday, Feb. 13 at 5 p.m. when gospel great Dorothy Norwood performs. Also appearing will be Charles and Taylor Butler, the SSU United Wesleyan Gospel Choir, the Savannah Community Choir and St. John Baptist Church Choir.

“We are trying to reach out and take the festival to the community,” James says. “The festival is open to everyone. We want everyone to come and explore the African-American culture. It’s not a festival of African Americans, it’s a festival celebrating African Americans.”

One of the nicest things about the Black Heritage Festival is that it’s free. All of the events associated with the festival are free and open to the public.

Dr. Peggy Blood organizes the visual arts and crafts aspect of the festival. She says when James came up with the idea to have an African village at the civic center, she was immediately enthused about it.

“What I like is the village concept,” Blood says. “It suggests a community of people. When you think about a community, you think about people working, hanging up clothes, walking around and doing various activities,” she says. “There is going to be something for kids 5 to 90.”

Some old favorites will be returning to the festival, with some exciting additions, Blood says. One popular presenter is Sammy Nicely, who does mask making.

“He came to the festival two or three years ago,” Blood says. “He will be doing paper masks that workshop participants can take home with them. He uses found objects in his work.”

Henry Leonard exhibited his work at the festival four years ago. He makes dolls that represent leaders in traditional African settings.

By far, the most popular workshops are led by basket maker Farnese Lumpkin, who happens to be a professor at SSU. “She has given workshops ever since the heritage festival has been sponsored by Savannah State,” Blood says. “Her workshops fill up before anyone else’s.”

Yvonne Grovner will present a weaving demonstration of sweetgrass baskets. Grovner lives on Sapelo Island.

“These are Gullah baskets,” Blood says. “She will have them on display. All workshops start at 1 p.m., with another at 3 p.m.”

Gloria Davis will display and demonstrate quilts. Her quilts will even serve as “walls” between the workshops.

“The village itself will try to emulate a homey, comfortable, family setting,” Blood says. “We want to try to make it feel like a community of people who are coming together and feeling at home.”

African Americans are all about family and community, Blood says. “You see it in our churches, in the way we look after each other,” she says. “We know each other, we speak to each other. This will be a neighborhood village, with the warm feeling you get when you are with neighbors.”

Blood attributes the festival’s growth to hard work and community cooperation. “It has become larger every year and more people come,” she says. “There are many people who help us that are not listed -- the Telfair museum, International Paper, various organizations,” Blood says. “It has really become a community effort. At one time, it wasn’t the whole community that helped us, but now more and more are helping. I think that is the spirit of Savannah.” Just six years ago, Blood might have two or three names on her list of artists to contact about the festival. “Now the artists are calling us,” she says.